How Life By You takes a fresh look at life simulation | Rod Humble interview
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Paradox Interactive last week revealed details about Life by You, an open life simulator coming from Paradox Tectonic and longtime game developer Rod Humble.
Humble leads Berkeley, California-based Paradox Tectonic, and he was a pioneer in the life simulation genre with titles such as The Sims and Second Life. But it’s been a while since we’ve had another successful title in this genre, and Humble believes another single-player experience is the right approach.
In Life by You, players will create humans and live out their lives without loading screens. Life by You will be available in early access on September 12. Players can pre-order it on the Epic Games Store for a suggested retail price of $40, and you will also be able to wishlist the title on Steam.
Life by You allows players to design and live out the lives of the humans that they create in an open game world where everything is customizable. Players create their households, build their homes and tell life’s many stories. Players can share their creations, but the focus is on making it a single-player experience.
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The idea is to deliver a huge amount of customization as well as privacy as players work out fantasies and other things that they can’t really experiment with in the real world, Humble said. You can live your life to the fullest or break the rules as you see fit.
Players can take direct control. You can drag and drop your humans into their place — or drive them directly in third-person mode. You can live the life of one or tell the stories of many. Climb a career ladder. Fall in love. Raise a family.
Paradox Interactive created Paradox Tectonic in 2019. The studio has veteran game development talent dedicated to building games that enable creativity, freedom, emotion, and sharing. I spoke with Humble at the Game Developers Conference last week in San Francisco.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What motivated you to go back to this space?
Rod Humble: I’m a life sim player myself. I wanted to work on a game with colleagues where we had a shared vision, really emphasizing freedom. That’s the reason it’s an open world. There are no loading screens. We can directly control people as well as control in third person. You can set up the world the way you want to reflect your community. We want to empower people and have them be free to tell the stories they want to tell. That was really the prime motivation. We want a game that feels free and low-friction to play.
GamesBeat: Was there some technology along the way that helped you accomplish that? Things the older generations of games don’t have?
Humble: It was designed from the ground up. We knew from day one that this was going to be an open world. We knew we were going to let you customize everything. That helped develop the whole game from the start. It would be hard to retrofit this kind of tech into an existing game. Everything assists that. It’s not just an open world in terms of a physical open world. It’s actually simulated simultaneously globally as well.
GamesBeat: Is it more like a city sim as well, then?
Humble: Every person in the world is always being simulated, even when you’re not looking. That’s a key difference for any life simulator. When you see somebody go to work and go into a building, they really go to work. You can follow them there and watch them do their work. You can even swap in between characters. As you go in the world and see anybody, you can right-click on them and play them. You get access to all their memories, all their loves and dislikes, all their social relationships. You can play their life permanently if you want, or just temporarily, and move them around. It’s that easy, rather than having to load up a separate saved game. “I want to play Cecily here,” or whatever her name is. That was the notion. It was allowing the players to play their game their way with as little friction as we could get.
GamesBeat: Switching players reminds me a little of Watch Dogs.
Humble: Yeah! Not only that, but you can add people on the fly, drop new people in, and they’re pre-generated out of whatever parameters you set in the global menu. But as you can see, all of these things that I can scroll down–I can also change every aspect of their personalities, all live. I can just pick them up.
GamesBeat: Did you think about making use of generative AI before this whole craze took off?
Humble: The way that we look at it is, we are making an open world life simulator. Players can bring in content in any way they want. The tech space content is an example where you can use generative AI. It may not sound sexy at all compared to a modeler doing it. But for example, if you wanted to make Life By You’s town be like the town that I’m from, a small village in England, or the town a player from Brazil is from, a small village in Brazil, then you can go in and make the people look like the way they look in your community. Also, you can change the dialect locally. Within the small village in England, we don’t call it soda. We call it pop. I want to customize for that. You can really go specific it the way you want.
The generative AI part–one thing that you may do is, we have a list of last names. It’s more than 5,000 names long, from around the world. You may see that that’s not the last names in your town, though. You can go into the AI system and say, “Give me the 100 last names from this village in England, or in Brazil,” and just import that. Delete all of ours and all of a sudden in your town, all the last names are correct for the story you want to tell.
We see our game as a platform that is able to support content made however you make it. If that’s with AI-assisted technologies, that’s up to you. It’s not our place to judge how you make content. My opinion is that we are on the cusp of a productivity boom and an economic boom that’s going to follow that. We want to position our game as–for example, ChatGPT can generate code. This is code. We want to make sure all of our pipelines are ready to accept all of this new content. That’s our place. We don’t necessarily want these things integrated into our experience, because this is a single-player, private game. It’s offline. We’re very sensitive to any kind of in-game connection. The players get to choose that, not us.
GamesBeat: Did you ever contemplate making it multiplayer, or was single-player always the vision?
Humble: It was for privacy and safety. A lot of life sim players–it’s a game about odd life. They want to experiment with all sorts of areas, including sexual relations, having families, various things. Most of which they don’t necessarily want to be public and shared. In fact, some of it is very sensitive. The reason that we wanted single-player is so nobody can interfere with your experience. They can’t come and mess it up. Also, nobody can look at your experience.
That’s not to say that you can’t play this and share it in the way many people do, whether you’re on Discord with your fans or streaming. That’s fine. But out of the gate we deliberately picked single-player, because the most important thing is freedom for the player, privacy, and safety. You can rest assured playing Life By You that it’s a single-player game. You can play it with your internet off. It doesn’t have to be connected to the internet. You can play it any way you want and import whatever you want. It’s quite important. It was a deliberate choice.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on this? How many people do you have?
Humble: A little more than four years. The team size is one of the things I’m keeping to myself. The only reason is, we used a lot of techniques of work management and production that we’re pretty proud of and worked very well. We may talk about it in the future, but I want the focus to be about the product. The team is comprised entirely of either people I’ve worked with before or very highly skilled veterans from across the industry, with a particular specialty in emergent technology, emergent gameplay, and life simulation.
GamesBeat: As a new entrant, do you feel like this was a good time? This space hasn’t seen a big game come along in a while.
Humble: I think it was more just a personal desire to explore this genre a bit more. I’ve really enjoyed it in the past. Virtual worlds and life simulations–I think the reason I like them is because they’re so resonant with people. We can all play game designer with it. That’s one of the joys of developing a life sim, playing a life sim, or making mods for a life sim. Whatever the subject, unlike–if you’re making a fantasy game about hitting people on the head with things, when you have a design discussion it tends to be on the designers. “I want to talk about KPS. How is this balanced?” When you design a life simulator, the whole team demands to be in the design meetings. “I know about household chores. I know about the stress of being in a marriage. I want to be a part of this meeting because I want to make sure the system can tell my story.”
That’s the appeal for me. As a genre, it’s ripe to explode, and we’re hopefully expanding the genre with our feature set. The more the merrier, as far as I can see. It’s an underserved genre and I hope to be able to expand it.
GamesBeat: Was there some meaning in the name? How did you come up with that?
Humble: We went through a lot of names. I forget who came up with it. It ended up being pretty perfect. You can replace the “You” with your name. That’s really the focus. This is a game for you. It’s for life sim players. We wanted the title to give a sense of our mission, as well as all the content. We mean that in a real sense. For example, if you’re a streamer, our terms of service specifically say that this is yours to stream. We’re the equivalent of a word processor. We’re not looking over your shoulder telling you what to write. That’s not our affair.
GamesBeat: How mean or nice can you be as a god in this world?
Humble: Out of the box there’s no violence in the game. There is nudity and romance, but we’re a European company. Those are our priorities. In terms of meanness, you can be kind of mean out of the gate, but we didn’t want to have–not out of the box, because this is a complete life simulator–for the full release, we don’t want any experience where it’s physical or emotional violence. Some of that mean dialogue can be funny in a certain context, but can be profoundly unfunny to some people. We’ve been pretty careful to keep the meanness dialed here rather than go really deep. But we also enable mods, plus live conversations where you can really get abusive. To be quite frank, a lot of people on the team, they love the deviant play style. They love going around and being really unpleasant to people. Giving them the finger.
GamesBeat: Is there some storytelling to this?
Humble: Yes, there are lots of–out of the box we have conversations around all of the different relationship types. You can be my friend, become a friend, and we have many great variants there. But we also ship with a tool so that if you’re a modder, you can go really deep on the conversations and have entire storylines. A mystery based on your conversations. We’ve gone very deep on the storytelling. We’re big believers in players being able to control their stories in the way they want. But you don’t have to make mods. You can just play it as it is and there are plenty of scripts.
GamesBeat: Are there particular story types that you think will be very common, things that people are likely to create?
Humble: There are a few play patterns that are quite common with life simulator players. Life sims are a little bit different from most games in that there’s one single player type. They all go into different brackets. Quite a lot of people do a little bit of everything, but here are the brackets. There are builders, who like to build homes, buildings, and businesses. There are dollmakers, as you can see. They like to make characters and share them.
Then there are storytellers. Those storytellers break up into different categories. The most common kind of storytelling, what new players tell, is they make themselves in their mid-20s. It doesn’t matter how old they currently are, whether they’re in their 50s or younger than their mid-20s. They’ll play themselves in their mid-20s. They’ll play that, and then they will usually go for a romantic pattern. The common play pattern is to make yourself and go and see how many romantic interactions you can have with the entire town. That’s one play pattern. Another one is a deviant storytelling play path, where you’re basically an agent of chaos and cause as much trouble as you can in the town. We support all of those different storytellers, plus some other archetypes.
GamesBeat: Is there a user-generated content part that allows people to be more creative?
Humble: You can go as deep as you like. We do ship with all of the tools that we used to make the actual gameplay. We give that to you out of the box. You can change our gameplay or make your own. The hardest tool by far–we have our own visual scripting language. If you go to an object you can go in deep and really change the gameplay. That was the world tool, where you can create businesses, office hours. You can also create entire new job ladders in new businesses. We have creative careers, so you can be an author, for example. You can decide to write science fiction, romance, mystery novels. What you see will influence your work. For example, if you’re writing a romance book, and today you’ve seen a romantic interaction, or someone is being romantic to you, the quality of your romance fiction will be better in the game. That’s one entire career.
This one is cooking, so his cooking skill is going up. Also, he’s just observed her. Now he’s posting social media, so he needs to relax. That piece of information, that he saw her relaxing on the couch, that now is stored permanently in his memory, and he can tell other people around the world. For example, her boss. He could say, “I saw her relaxing.” The boss could say, “At 6:29 AM on Monday? That’s when she was meant to be at work.” That’s an example of how our social information exchanges. We think that kind of ability for our agents to observe the world, as well as react to it and have memories about the world, that’s a kind of–we hope it’s a magic that will enable people to tell much more interesting stories.
GamesBeat: Does the world go on when you’re not there?
Humble: Yes, it’s all simultaneous, all the time.
GamesBeat: Your character isn’t an exception to that?
Humble: No. It’s a single-player game, so if you quit the game, the world stops until you load up the game again. But while you’re playing, everybody is being simulated at exactly the same time. If I right click on this person I can then take over that person and live their life. My person would then be AI-controlled if I chose. Or I can say, “No, don’t do anything until I get back.” You can do that as well. But everything is being simulated all the time in all of these buildings. You can mouse over that, the roof will disappear, and you get to see the people in it doing their things.
GamesBeat: Was there any particular reason to go with Paradox as opposed to anybody else?
Humble: They’re the perfect company. I reached out to Fred a little more than four years ago. He was aligned with–Paradox has a long history of supporting mods and making sandbox games. When we were talking about this, his emphasis was on mods. We could go heavy on mods because he believes in serving Paradox players. As a company, we’ve seen success come from–the more players can mod the game, the longer they play it.
Also, I will say, obviously I can’t take credit for any of this, because our game isn’t out yet, but one of the reasons I was drawn to Paradox is that I love the support they give to their products. They just keep going on supporting their products, even if it means redoing them. Stellaris I think has been an entirely different game three times over its lifespan, and I love that. They were the perfect partner for me. I’m very grateful to our colleagues at Paradox over the years who have supported us with this very big game while they’ve been out on the front lines making their customers happy.
GamesBeat: How do you expand this? Is there a road map to what you’re going to add to it?
Humble: Our main focus is on the full release, which will be at least 12 months after early access. We want to make sure it’s the biggest, most feature-rich life sim game out the gate. It already is in terms of–we already have work. We have the open world. We have conversation. But we want to make sure that this is robust. Obviously a lot of graphical improvements and tweaks, which is an entirely creative world. We want to make sure that it’s looking more polished. But the idea is that out of the gate, when we do full launch, you should be able to pick up Life By You and not worry about mods at all. You can just play it as the biggest, most feature-rich life sim ever. Then, when you’re done, hopefully you’ll want to start creating or downloading other people’s creations.
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